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The Holiday PTO Trap: Use This Scientific Method to Avoid Employee Burnout

Employees may be forced to take PTO, but will work at home leading to employee burnout. Learn how to keep your line managers accountable.

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If you work in HR, December is the time of year when you start having more uncomfortable and random conversations with line managers on a regular basis. You may find yourself actually saying: “Please remind your direct reports that— while appropriate during an internal team party—performing the tight pants dance Will Ferrell-style is not recommended during a customer holiday event.”

Or on the PTO (Paid Time Off) front, there is likely an item that you are itching to discuss, but are hesitant to broach because it could put the line manager on the defensive: Whether employees who are owed PTO are actually going to be working from home when the books say they are officially “off”—What I like to call the “Holiday PTO Trap.”

The holiday PTO trap, defined

The “Holiday PTO Trap” happens like this (particularly in knowledge work): People work hard throughout the year, and often neglect to take all the time they are owed. (In fact, American workers permanently lost 169 million days of earned PTO in 2013, according to a report conducted for the U.S. Travel Association.) Then the fiscal year-end starts to loom on the horizon (which often coincides with December 31st) and managers are on the hook to make sure people are using their unused time.

This typically isn’t a problem if a team’s workload actually slows down this time of year. However, for some the workload actually increases. For instance, people who work in Finance at a company with a December 31st year-end have to ramp up during the holiday season. The resulting pinch means that management tells people to “take the time off,” but with the expectation that they will just do the work from home anyway.

The consequence? Employees who haven’t been taking enough vacation in the first place come back from their so-called holidays more drained than when they left. This can lead to burnout, a decrease in morale, and increased turnover risks. (According to this Altantic.com article, vacation deprivation increases mistakes and resentment at co-workers.)

Getting your line managers to fess up to this is easier said than done. If you approach them with a hunch that they are guilty of the Holiday PTO Trap, they will likely deny it. But if you approach them with data that supports your hunch, you have a much better chance of having a productive conversation.

There are steps you can start to take now to see if this is happening within your organization — and make sure that it doesn’t happen next year. In my previous post, Shape HR Strategies with Storytelling, I outlined a “scientific” method for storytelling with data. You can use the same method to have a fact-based discussion about a thorny topic like PTO fairness with your line manager. Use this approach:

Phase 1: Investigate the problem

If you see that there is a high volume of PTO during the holiday season for a department that is busy this time of year, it could be a red flag that people will be working from home while on PTO. But instead of going out and pointing fingers, STOP and use this method to get the facts first:

Step 1: Assess the situation and ask questions

  • Ask: “How do we know that people are working while on PTO?” Take a minute to jot down all your questions and concrete observations.

Step 2: Assess the business impact

  • Look at all your questions, and pare the list down to the ones that impact the business. A good one is: “How is working while on PTO impacting productivity and employee retention?”

Step 3: Understand the who, when and what

  • Who: It is critical to understand which groups are experiencing high volume of PTO during crunch periods because this will determine which group you will analyze to uncover key trends.

  • When: Take a look at the group’s yearly workload requirements — When would it make the most sense for people within this department to take time off? Are they actually taking time off during these relatively slower periods?

  • What: Once you understand the who and when, you can dig into the impacts. To find evidence of the Holiday PTO Trap, look back at the historical data to see if there is a relationship between attrition, sick leave and a particular manager. This could be a sign that a particular group is not really getting the time off they need.

Phase 2: Have a fact-based discussion with your line manager

When it’s time to discuss the issue, if you have done the correct analysis, you will be in a much better position to help your line manager take action for next year so that they can ensure employees use their PTO throughout the year. You can use a headline and key supporting points:

Headline: It is crucial to ensure employees are taking enough PTO throughout the year

  • Who is impacted and over what timeframe

  • What we discovered from the data

  • What we need to do to resolve this issue

Together, you can come up with a plan for ensuring employees take adequate PTO during the upcoming year. This way, those employees who absolutely need to work over the holidays won’t be resentful that they haven’t had any vacation all year. Take the opportunity to check in by the third quarter of 2023 to see how the line manager is working against this plan.

Science says time off is good for productivity

If your employees aren’t taking off enough time throughout the year, they aren’t getting the rest they need to stay productive. A National Geographic article cites studies that have found “vacations boost energy reserves so that you need less effort to get work done when you return.” According to the article: “Counter to the prevailing bravado myth, productivity is not a function of how long or torturously you work. In the knowledge economy, the source of true productivity is a refreshed and energized mind.” In fact, self-reported job performance is “significantly higher after a vacation,” notes respite expert Dov Eden of the University of Tel Aviv.

If you follow the method outlined above, you can help your line managers to make changes so that employees are well-rested and productive, helping deliver a real impact for the business.

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